Henning Bendtsen obituary

Henning Bendtsen behind the camara shooting 'Gertrud' 1964. Photo: Else Kjær.
Henning Bendtsen photographed The Word (1955) and Gertrud (1964).

Cinematographer, film director, Screenwriter. Born 6 March 1925 - died 8 February 2011.

Cinematographer Bendtsen was considered a true master in his field, and his work with lighting, camera angles and framing was described as "spectacular cinematic art" by the Danish daily Politiken on the occasion of Bendtsen's 85th birthday in the fall 2010. Bendtsen was also cinematographer on Lars von Trier's Epidemic and Europe.

Read 'Henning Bendtsen obituary' by Ronald Bergan, published in guardian.co.uk Thursday 17 February 2011. Thanks to the Guardian and the author we can bring it on carlthdreyer.dk.


Henning Bendtsen obituary

Cinematographer with a cool, austere style who linked the eras of Dreyer and Von Trier 

© Ronald Bergan/Guardian News & Media Ltd 2011

If the Danish cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, who has died aged 85, had shot nothing else but Carl Dreyer's final masterpieces, Ordet (The Word, 1955) and Gertrud (1964), he would have been entitled to a place in the pantheon of cinema. Although he shot 57 features, it was his collaboration with the saintly Dreyer on these two films which conferred an enviable eminence on him. 

"It turned out to be a very harmonious collaboration between Dreyer and me, which always will be the most valuable association I have experienced within my profession," Bendtsen recalled. "We quickly connected with each other, both as professionals and as humans." 

As can be seen in Ordet and Gertrud, it is clear that Bendtsen understood what Dreyer meant by "realised mysticism". The contrasting tonality of lighting both reflects and creates the moods within the same frame, resulting in an almost hypnotic atmosphere of stillness so that each image could continue to exist as an eye-catching still. 

Born in Copenhagen, the son of a professor of German, Bendtsen wanted to be a cinematographer from childhood. As there were no schools of cinematography in the early 1940s in Denmark, he studied to become a photographer. However, he managed, aged 21, to get a job as camera operator at the Minerva studios, for which he shot several shorts and documentaries before moving on to Palladium films, where he stayed until 1958. 

By 1954 Bendtsen had progressed to director of photography when it was announced that Dreyer was going to make Ordet at Palladium. At the time, Bendtsen was shooting Escape from Terror, an American co-production in English, starring and directed (with his brother George) by the former child star Jackie Coogan. Disastrous as the red scare spy thriller was, it still stands as the first Danish feature film in colour. 

Ordet, a tale of miraculous resurrection brought about by love, is an extraordinary expression of spiritual optimism. By then, Dreyer's cool, austere style, with sharp matte blacks and luminous whites, had begun to rely more on a series of leisurely long takes and travelling shots. 

A decade would pass before Dreyer made Gertrud, but there was no doubt that Bendtsen would be his DP again. Gertrud, the portrait of a woman who aspires to an ideal and unattainable notion of love, takes the form of a series of duologues photographed with an almost immobile camera and immensely long takes. "When we shot Ordet, Dreyer was very impressed with my tracking shots, with how long I could make them last," explained Bendtsen. 

"I think for Dreyer it was a very interesting technical development, so in Gertrud, we used a lot of tracking shots. I remember very clearly how I often had to politely make him aware that we were running out of film, after shooting for 11 minutes, which was the maximum reel length. There was another problem. Because the script wasn't divided into scenes, but more like one unbroken string of action, I couldn't put the fill light anywhere. The fill light is your secondary light, the light you use to soften up the edges created by the key light. It was solved by simply putting this 2kw light on top of the camera. That was one hell of a job, because we had to regulate the brightness of the light, depending on how far from the lens the actors would be." 

The film was ill-received at the Cannes festival and on its release by those with a limited definition of action. The action here was in the stylised performances, the dialogue and the harmony between image and sound, creating a film of exceptional intensity, warmth and serenity, achieved with the help of chamber music. 

Between the two Dreyer films, Bendtsen was just a cameraman for hire, shooting anything that came his way, many being commercial comedies and soapy dramas, strictly for local consumption. Among the exceptions was Astrid Henning-Jensen's Paw (1959), the adventures of a 12-year-old mixed-race boy in Denmark, which was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, and for which Bendtsen won the Bodil (the top Danish film award) for his colour photography. 

After Dreyer, Bendtsen continued in the same way, working for journeyman directors, apart from Gabriel Axel and Lars von Trier. For the former, Bendtsen shot The Red Mantle (1967), based on a Scandinavian medieval legend, filmed entirely on location in Iceland. According to the critic Roger Ebert, "the photography places us so firmly in the breathtaking lonely vastness of Iceland that we can believe only heroes could inhabit this land … From scenes of conflict, the camera often looks up to unbroken panoramas of mountains, ice, mist and tough green vegetation." 

In contrast, for Von Trier, Bendtsen had to shoot the experimental medical horror movie Epidemic (1987) on a very tight budget (£100,000) in grainy black and white in 16mm, and in colour, enlarged to 35mm. Von Trier's Europa (1991), Bendtsen's last picture, was set in 1945 Germany, and filmed in black and white and muted colour, using double-exposures, optical effects and trick photography, placing the characters inside a many-layered visual universe. One memorable scene is a suicide in a bath, where the monochrome background is suddenly flooded with blood. A direct link between Dreyer and Von Trier was forged with Bendtsen as the intermediary. In addition, after the shooting of Gertrud, Dreyer gave Bendtsen his tuxedo – the one he wore in Venice when he received the Golden Lion for Ordet. Bendtsen then passed it on to Von Trier. "It fits me like a glove," said the director. 

Bendtsen is survived by his wife, Inger, whom he married in 1981. 

• Henning Bendtsen, cinematographer, born 6 March 1925; died 8 February 2011

© Ronald Bergan/Guardian News & Media Ltd 2011